Discovery & Impact

McCourt Professor Receives New Grant to Advance Universal Pre-K Study

September 6, 2018

September, 2018 – McCourt School of Public Policy Professor William Gormley was recently awarded $460,000 in new funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation, to continue his research on the effects of universal pre-K programs, focusing this time on high school outcomes.

Gormley and his collaborators, including Deborah Phillips of the Psychology Department, have spent nearly two decades investigating the impact of the Tulsa Oklahoma universal pre-k program on public school performance. Last year, this culminated in a publication that was the first of its kind to evaluate the effects of a universal, public school pre-K program on middle school outcomes.

The Georgetown-based team discovered that positive effects, including improved math performance, are, in fact, detectable as late as middle school.

Tackling The Next Challenge

Gormley’s new funding is aimed at addressing whether the positive effects of universal pre-K are detectable in high school outcomes – a result that would create a stronger argument for early childhood education. Critics of early childhood education programs claim that the short term benefits of early childhood education “fade out” or disappear over time.

“The key question is whether the persistent effects are strong enough to justify the allocation of scarce resources to early childhood education programs,” Gormley said.

In the next round of research, Gormley and his collaborators, at West Virginia University and UW-Madison, hope to examine a range of outcomes, including AP course enrollment and test scores, SAT and ACT test scores, attendance, suspensions, high school graduation, and college enrollment.

“We have two reasons to be optimistic,” Gormley said. “First, Tulsa’s early childhood education program is relatively high in quality. And second, Tulsa’s K-12 system continues to provide some opportunities for pre-K alumni to build on early gains.”

At the same time, Gormley warned, none of this is certain. Despite a recent teacher salary hike, after a statewide teachers’ strike, Oklahoma continues to lose talented teachers to nearby states that spend more on public education. “You can’t sustain early learning gains without a strong K-12 system,” Gormley noted.

Informing Policymakers

Last year, Gormley’s publication on pre-K’s effects on middle school outcomes generated considerable interest in the public policy community and in the mass media, and he hopes to continue to better inform policymakers.

“We’re trying to enlighten public officials to help them to understand whether fade out is a reality, and also whether it’s the only reality,” Gormley explained. “This is the first serious, sustained study of the long-term effects of a universal pre-K program.”

Gormley is a co-director of the McCourt School’s Center for Research on Children in the United States. Several dozen student research assistants and several faculty members have contributed to the Tulsa pre-K investigation since 2001.

The Georgetown team’s work in Tulsa has documented substantial improvements in pre-reading, pre-writing, and pre-math skills for young children participating in the school-based pre-K program.